Medical and scientific experts are continuously researching the benefits of omega-3. At the same time, the research aims to uncover the negative effects of a diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 – a select group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids – is essential for optimal health and development. However, our bodies do not produce these fatty acids naturally. Therefore, we must add these fatty acids through diet or supplements.
Research has singled out eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as the two most beneficial omega-3s. EPA is found in certain nuts and seeds and DHA is found in oily fish like salmon and sardines.
EPA and DPA are linked to supporting heart health, immune system functioning and inflammatory responsiveness. In addition, with over 60% of the brain made up of fat, omega-3s are linked to supporting brain function.
These fatty acids also support eye health and central nervous system performance and strengthens eye development.
Higher levels of omega-3 can contribute to lowering the risk of various diseases while, at the same time, improving the development and overall functioning of our brains. For unborn and young babies, this is especially essential. The most important levels of brain development take place before – and shortly – after birth. In fact, 70% of all the brain cells a person will need are formed before birth.
There is a specific correlation between supplementing with DHA during pregnancy and foetal and infant brain development (linked to higher IQ scores and increased attention spans).
Scientific studies have indicated that low levels of omega-3 can be linked to low birth weight and poor brain function. It is also linked to problems like ADHD or autism later in children’s lives.
This has raised further concerns relating to the use of baby formula which doesn’t contain, or contains very little, DHA. This is compared to the breastmilk of a mother who ensures she receives optimal levels of the fatty acid through diet and / or supplementation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) encourages moms to breastfeed infants until the age of two for the maximum health benefits. The nutrients found in breast milk (including omega-3s) are important for a baby’s immune system and brain. However, this premise depends on a breastfeeding mother having adequate omega-3 levels herself. Even if a mother eats a healthy diet and supplements with omega-3, these levels may be insufficient due to malabsorption.
In addition to the benefits of Omega-3 s for babies, the fatty acids have also been linked to lowering a mother’s likelihood of perinatal depression due to their impact on serotonin (considered a natural mood stabiliser) functioning.
A 2009 study looked at the relationship between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and depression in 16 depressed and 22 non-depressed women in the third trimester of their pregnancies. It found that high levels of DHA and high levels of total omega-3 fatty acids were significantly linked with a reduced risk of depression. The researchers further noted that omega-3 fatty acids may be preferentially diverted to the baby during pregnancy. This puts the mother at an increased risk of deficiency.
Having established the importance – and related benefits – of omega-3 intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the question arises: how much is enough?
Breastfeeding moms need 300mg of DHA per day. This is according to the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and the National Institute of Health (NIH). 300mg is believed to be enough to meet the needs of both mother and baby. The 300mg can come from a fish oil supplement or by including a few fillets of fish in one’s diet.
It appears, however, that the most effective source of omega-3 fatty is real food and not supplements. Some of the foods highest in omega-3s include flax seeds, chia seeds, salmon, walnuts, dark leafy greens, sardines and tuna.
While increasing omega-3 intake, mothers should limit their omega-6 or ‘unhealthy fat’ consumption. This means cutting down on processed and fried foods.
As with all major dietary changes, it is always advisable to consult a healthcare professional. Do so before you change your diet, or start taking a course of over the counter medication, vitamins or supplements.